Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue flagship is a great place to pick up a striped tie. It’s also a great place to learn the world’s most difficult sport.
I’ve played a lot of sports in my life — probably 15 or so if you count things like kayaking and mountain biking. Fencing, badminton and swing dancing (which is sort of sportlike) were the biggest obsessions. Tennis, table tennis and surfing less so. I learn quickly, and after attaining a certain superficial mastery move on to something else. It comes with being a Sagittarius: shooting arrows until you hit the target, then galloping off in search of a new one. It may seem like fickleness, but it’s really just a sense of adventure and the desire to experience as much of life as possible.
In every case I never would have predicted the new obsession, and that goes especially for the latest one: golf.
I remember being age 11 and hitting a hole-in-one on a miniature golf course while on a family vacation. My father gave me a strage look, perhaps wondering if there was some untapped talent inside of me. But it was never encouraged, and it wasn’t until age 25 that I first tried to hit a golf ball.
I was doing a golf-related story for a magazine and was interviewing some guys at a course. They suggested I go to the range and try hitting some balls. I spent 15 minutes unable to get a single ball into the air. I quit with scoffing indifference, convinced the sport was a combination of impossible and impossibly boring.
Fast forward 16 years to March of this year, when I visited Brooks Brothers’ newly remodeled third floor, where there is a $60,000 super high-tech golf simulator. I was encouraged to take a few swings, and Brooks’ PR director snapped this photo of my baseball-inspired finish:
I remained uninterested, but a couple of months later I began dating a woman who plays golf (her company also manufactures most of Brooks Brothers’ Chinese-made clothing — talk about sleeping with the enemy). The seed must have been planted in my head that golf was a possibility. After all, if she could do it, so could I. So one day, while browsing in Brooks, one of the hosts of the simulator encouraged me, carnival barker-style, to come up and take a few whacks. I ended up spending two hours learning the rudiments of golf, and went back for two more hours the following day.
It was July 13. Since then I’ve devoted myself completely to studying the sport, and this week, just shy of my third month, I played a full course for the first time. But let’s backtrack.
I started going to Brooks regularly. The guys who run the simulator are from Golf Manhattan, a simulator lounge in Midtown. The simulator is a large soft screen you hit balls into. A set of cameras record the speed, trajectory and spin of your ball flight. Instant physics calculations are made, and your shot is replicated in the virtual world of the computer-generated golf course. If you hit your shot long and straight, you make it to the green. If you slice it wide, you watch your ball fly into the lake. Putting is a little weird, as there’s no real hole to hit into, but overall it’s invaluable training for the process of advancing down a 500-yard fairway, changing clubs along the way to adapt to the decreasing yardage, and for working on your swing.
I also began watching the Golf Channel daily, downloaded a couple dozen instructional videos, read the breviary “Golf in the Kingdom,” and started bicycling to the driving range on Randall’s Island. Perhaps from finesse moves such as the parries in fencing, or the delicate underspin pushes in table tennis, controlled pitches from 100 yards or less came to me the most naturally, while driving off the tee was so difficult I resolved to just forget it for six months.
I bought nearly all my equipment on eBay. After being told there was no reason to get expensive clubs at the beginning stage, and that any set would do so long as they were designed to be forgiving, I scored a complete set on eBay for $30. Being a style guy with his priorities straight, I then proceeded to drop $150 on brown-and-white spectator-style golf shoes. Putter, sand wedge and pitching wedge, all in great condition, were found at a thrift shop for $8 each. The hickory-shaft Callaway lob wedge, pictured below, ran $60 on eBay.
Somewhere around the seven-week mark I put my skills to the test. The girlfriend and I rented the lounge at Golf Manhattan for two hours and played an 18-hole course on the simulator. Using a 5 iron as the longest club, I came out with a score of 77, which no one could believe. Granted there were a few mulligans (do-overs) when I made a total miss-hit, and gimme putts were probably set at a generous nine feet. Still, as we left the building, my girlfriend, who shot a 95, said, “You’re not a beginner anymore.” It was a great compliment but was also daunting, as I knew I now had no excuse not to learn to drive off the tee.
It wasn’t until the following day that I realized why I’d hit so well: I hadn’t thought about technique at all. I’d gone there to have fun and was only thinking about the yardage and my club selection. In other words, I was thinking about the game, not my feet, hips, shoulders, arms, wrists, takeback, follow-through, grip or the countless other things that go into swinging a golf club. In short, I was in the zone.
I found the zone again that same week the first time I went to play outdoors. In Corona Park in Queens, right next to the tennis center at Flushing Meadows, is a “pitch and putt” golf course consisting of 18 holes of 30 to 80 yards. Every hole is a par three, meaning you’ve got one shot to land on the green and two putts to get it in the hole. The first hole is 80 yards, and I made par on it — the first hole I’d ever played on a course not run by a computer. It was like catching my first wave on a surfboard.
But highs in golf rarely last. Soon the nightmare holes came: Pitches didn’t find the green, chips skated from one end of the green to the other, and it took four putts to get the damn ball in the hole. But I found the zone on the back nine, shooting a 29 against a par of 27. I was so focused it was as if my mind was willing the ball into the hole. I’ve played that short course another five times since then and have never been able to match the determination I had that first time out.
Golf is like that, and if you’re philosophically inclined, will constantly present itself as a metaphor for life. Unfortunate events can be miraculously reversed by a fantastic rescue shot. And of course attitude determines everything. Putt timidly and nervously and the ball will never find the hole. Visualize it going in, and maybe it will.
I learned that the first time the girlfriend and I decided to have some fun and play the miniature golf course at the Randall’s Island Golf Center. The course doesn’t have silly loop-the-loops, but real undulating greens that force you to pick your line carefully. On the first hole, my first shot ended up too close to the brick boundary to take a backswing, so I bounced it off the wall billiard-style into the hole. The girlfriend gave me a look of quizzical befuddlement. A couple of holes later the first hole-in-one came, and she started to look annoyed. When we came to a crazy U-shaped hole that went up and down with an extreme sideways bank, I visualized the shot going in (as I’d learned from an instructional video), and proceeded to knock it in.
Now the girlfriend looked at me like I’d just walked on water. I think she asked if I was from another planet. I told her to just go up and do it. She tried but made a lousy shot. I said try again and don’t let the ball hit the wall — hit it just enough to trickle down the middle. She proceeded to hole it, and jumped up and down ecstatically. She’d gone from disbeliever to believer in 30 seconds.
Golf requires a certain faith. How else could anyone believe it’s possible to hit a ball down a gopher hole from 500 yards away with a little f**cked-up stick, as Robin Williams hilariously described it, in just a few strokes? When I played a full course for the first time last week — at Kissena Park in Flushing — I went there expecting something amazing to happen, and it did. Despite slicing nearly every drive, I parred two holes (with a birdie putt rolling off the lip), and made bogeys (just one over par) on seven more.
When I first tried to hit golf balls 16 years ago, I concluded it was impossible. Now I know it’s not, and if you can rise to the challenge and handle the frustration of golf, you’ll feel like you can do anything. It’s also more affordable than you might think, and more fun than television would suggest. And if you work in Midtown Manhattan, you can stop by Brooks Brothers on your lunch hour and start learning to play.
I may sound like an evangelist, but a better term would be believer. Thank you Brooks Brothers and Golf Manhattan for showing me the way. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD